Frozen pipes, black ice

Frozen pipes are new to me. I grew up in Dallas—a landlocked city within a dry state in which, therefore, the concept of running water overnight in January just seems abhorrently wasteful. It rarely got cold enough, anyway. Having lived in Jackson—a humid city in a near-tropical state—for a decade, I never gleaned the various tricks used to keep running water during winter. Even worse, until last year, I lived either in a dorm or a second-floor apartment in a complex, and so never lived with the possibility that my pipes would get cold enough to freeze.

La Bella and I figured out the basics from friends from northern climates, but I didn’t think I’d ever need to use them. The city disagreed. It’s been below freezing every night since last Sunday, so we’ve gotten used to sleeping to the sound of dripping water everywhere, and of the heating system dry-heaving in stutters as it tries to keep up. (And we’re only attempting to get the temperature up to 62°F.)

But we didn’t keep the cabinets below the kitchen sink open, and we’ve only been dripping the hot water faucets, and our trickles haven’t been strong enough, and we didn’t close the doors to both bathrooms to conserve the heat in there (instead wanting it to cycle through the entire, mostly uninsulated house), and…

Enough. So, here I am on a Saturday morning, unable to take a shower, with a kitchen sink that’s stopped up with ice in the drainage pipes, with a toilet that won’t refill after a flush. La Bella is sick. I’m freezing my toes off, so much so that I’m considering raking the lawn just to warm myself up.

Extreme conditions allow us to better understand things that, in regular times, befuddle us. I suppose that’s why Werner Herzog makes the movies that he does—each foolhardy enterprise forces him to look directly into the abyss, without the complications of civilization. I guess that’s so many works of art are about war, a condition in which all our philosophies and theoretical choices are met by the reality of human nature and violence.

Whatever. My little epiphany concerns Stan Brakhage. I’ve grappled with his movies before, having made myself watch the 2-disc By Brakhage in its entirety, as a crash course in American avant-garde cinema. Those viewings constitute one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of my life.

I was captivated frequently during that month, however, and in particular by a two-minute short entitled Black Ice. I’d never slipped on black ice; I didn’t even know what it was. I’d never seen it—although it turns out that that’s part of the point. The movie’s frame is mostly black, with shards of painted color—cracked within and jagged on the exteriors, much like ice—flashing in throughout. The fragments, swirling and fluctuating, appear to surge slowly forward toward the eye, so that the effect is that we seem to be falling into the film. The film encapsulates the look of ice, the feeling (including the coldness and wetness) of it, and the way it can affect your mind as you’re slipping and losing control of balance…

…Or of your household. Without full control of the house’s water, and no knowledge of plumbing, I’ve had a helpless feeling all day. As I run hot water in the kitchen sink, hoping to melt the ice in the drainage pipe, I sense the warm trickles burrowing slowly into the frozen pipewater. Brakhage helped me imagine what it might be like inside those plunking, plunking drops.

Anyway, here is Black Ice (1994):

Happy New Year.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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